There was a certain comic timing to the news that Arsenal’s head of recruitment Sven Mislintat was on the verge of leaving the club so soon after Unai Emery had admitted that there was no money to spend on new players, and that any incoming business would be limited to loans and free transfers. Let’s break for an old dad joke: What’s the easiest job in the world? Managing the complaints department at a parachute packing plant.
There is a usual checklist when a manager joins a top-six team: Pay a back-handed compliment to your predecessor, talk up the immediate response you’ve seen from players in training, remark that there are areas to strengthen, and then embark on a period of significant spending. New managers bring new ideas that need new faces.
Unai Emery is being forced down a different path. Arsenal’s manager admitted this week that he has no money to spend on transfer fees. Any incoming business will be restricted to loans and free transfers. That’s after a summer in which Arsenal hardly went berserk. A list of clubs that spent more on new signings: Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Everton, Leicester City, West Ham, Wolves, Fulham.
When a football club, particularly one with Arsenal’s profile, comes out and says that it cannot afford to buy players, the instant reaction is to blame the owner. We have become indoctrinated into seeing rapid investment as the only routine to improvement, a ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ mentality fostered after the extraordinary spending of oligarchs at the top end of the Premier League.
Stan Kroenke understandably cops more flak than most. Kroenke has refused to embark on a wanton spending spree, a principle backed by managing director Vinai Venkatesham. “We have a self-sustaining business model at this club,” Venkatesham said in October. “That means all the investments we make on the pitch are funded by the revenues we generate off the pitch. And we’re really confident we can be successful with this model. The ambition we have for this club is completely possible to be achieved in the business model that we’ve got.”
The reality is that Arsenal have little choice, given Kroenke’s power and methods. This billionaire is not for turning. In such circumstances, businesses often talk of being ‘smarter’. That’s a euphemism for getting more out of less.
The uncomfortable truth is that Arsenal’s chickens have come home to roost. Emery is curled up in the back of the coop, paying the price for the mistakes of those who came before him. He might well have known what he was signing up for, but the cold light of day can still bite away at morale.
Over the last five years, Arsenal have proven themselves to be poor buyers, to the extent that they overhauled their recruitment processes in January 2018 in a bid to solve the crisis. It is inaccurate to say that the club have not spent money. Since June 2014, Arsenal have spent approximately £430m on new players – significantly less than Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United but hardly nominal.
There have been successes, but given that the goalkeeping situation is still not perfect, the club could do with at least two defenders and still doesn’t quite know its best central midfield partnership, scrutiny is valid. Shkodran Mustafi is still the sixth most expensive central defender in the history of the game. Granit Xhaka is the seventh most expensive central midfielder. Given Arsenal’s exhaustive resources, there is a greater pressure for expensive signings to thrive.
But if Arsenal have been hit-and-miss at buying players, they are surely the worst high-profile club in Europe at selling them. Here’s a list: Jack Wilshere, Ashley Cole, Wojciech Szczesny, Serge Gnabry, Bacary Sagna, Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie, Alexis Sanchez, Gael Clichy, Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira. Not one of those stellar (during or after their time at Arsenal) players was sold for more than £30m; six were sold for £10m or less. Arsenal have never sold a player for more than £35m.
Here’s another list, this time of more middling names: Johan Djourou, Denilson, Andrei Arshavin, Lukasz Fabianski, Lucas Perez, Joel Campbell, Mathieu Debuchy, Marouane Chamakh, Gervinho, Jeff Reine-Adelaide, Gabriel Paulista, Francis Coquelin, Olivier Giroud. You can add Petr Cech, Danny Welbeck and Aaron Ramsey to that list come June. Those players left Arsenal for combined transfer fees of a shade over £50m. Liverpool sold Danny Ings, Jordon Ibe and Dominic Solanke for more than Arsenal received for those 13 players. Chelsea sold Oscar for more than the Arsenal 13.
The related issue is that Arsenal have proven themselves to be worryingly incompetent at managing contracts. The Mesut Ozil situation is the latest farce, the highest-paid player in the club’s history now apparently unwanted by the new manager. But it doesn’t stop with him. Henrikh Mkhitaryan is on more than they were paying Alexis Sanchez. Aaron Ramsey’s contract has been allowed to tick down. Further back, Van Persie and Nasri were the same. A report from Global Sports Salaries calculated that Arsenal’s average player wage is virtually the same as Liverpool’s at £4.8m. One club is getting a lot more bang for its buck.
Clubs with virtually unlimited funds can afford to live such a way – Arsenal cannot. Their strategic mistakes have been exacerbated by a flatlining commercial income that at the last count was £127.1m behind Manchester City and £184.6m behind Manchester United. The lack of Champions League football hardly helps.
That does not absolve Emery of criticism. When watching Arsenal at West Ham, it was difficult to work out what sort of team they actually are. They don’t always press high up the pitch or as a unit but in pockets and bursts. They seem to have slightly abandoned the passing out from the back. They sometimes go direct to the striker and sometimes play short passes through midfield. They have played 3-4-3, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-1-2 and 3-4-2-1 this season.
Arsenal also make more first-half or half-time substitutions than any other Premier League team, hinting that Emery is not yet sure. He risks cutting off nose to spite face by freezing out Ozil. Omitting to put a game-changer on the bench would appear a fool’s errand.
But there must be an acceptance with Arsenal – and the club’s support – that this is all part of the process. Change will not come via a succession of forward steps but lurches forward (22-match unbeaten runs) and back (defeats at Southampton and West Ham). The landscape has shifted. Accelerated change is only possible through accelerated spending. Infighting and outrage only makes it more difficult. Emery’s task is hard and the project long.
That is not to say that Venkatesham’s vision of sustainability is impossible, but it might require a change in mindset from those used to Arsenal living differently. Supporters will not thank me for the comparison, but there is a club just across north London that is thriving in a similar vein. Are Tottenham Arsenal’s new blueprint?